Steel and Blood: South Vietnamese Armor and the War for Southeast Asia
by Ha Mai Viet. Naval Institute Press, 2008, $36.
More than 30 years after the fall of Saigon, much of what passes for common wisdom about the Vietnam War remains firmly rooted in propaganda, ideological polemics and gross distortions of fact. This was the staple of what at the time passed for public discourse about one of the pivotal events of the 1960s and early 1970s. Many people still view Vietnam veterans as then-drug-crazed baby killers who now make up the dregs of American society.
That article of faith of the former antiwar movement is finally starting to change slowly, but unfortunately the equally unjust stereotypes of our South Vietnamese allies, as nothing but a bunch of lazy cowards who were perfectly willing to let us do their fighting for them, remains as firmly fixed as ever. Even the former President of the United States apparently still believed this. Interviewed on Fox News in 2004, President George W. Bush was asked by Bill O’Reilly, “The South Vietnamese didn’t fight for their freedom, which is why they don’t have it today?” “Yes,” answered Bush.
Steel and Blood: South Vietnamese Armor and the War for Southeast Asia, by former ARVN Colonel Ha Mai Viet, is the latest contribution to the slowly growing but still far too small body of literature that examines the war from the ARVN perspective. Extensively researched and thoroughly documented, this book is an unflinching “warts and all” history of the ARVN’s armored force. Colonel Ha spent eight years traveling widely, examining documents and interviewing scores of the ARVN’s surviving participants of the war.
Because of Vietnam’s turbulent post-1975 history, there are significant gaps today in the historical record; Ha acknowledges this and does not attempt to gloss over it with speculation. Although he has some harsh words for the ARVN’s top generals at the political level, he paints a portrait of unwavering ARVN armored troopers and their commanders at the fighting level, at the line of contact.
Colonel Ha has all the personal battlefield credibility needed to tell this story. He served in the ARVN for 21 years, commanding armored units at the platoon through battalion levels. He also served as a brigade executive officer, as an assistant division commander, and as the chief of the strategic Quang Tri Province, situated just south of the 17th parallel. He earned 38 decorations for valor and leadership, including the U.S. Bronze Star Medal and three awards of the Cross of Gallantry with Palm.
The last 150 pages of Colonel Ha’s book are a treasure trove of order-of-battle information and operational details on the ARVN’s armored and mechanized units— an invaluable reference with material available nowhere else. But it is the book’s first 250 pages that present detailed analyses of 22 key battles in which the armored forces participated, from Ap Bac in January 1963 to the fall of the Republic of Vietnam in 1975. As a captain, Ha commanded the 5th Troop, 1st M-113 APC Regiment on the second day of Ap Bac. His perspective on the role of American advisers in that battle, especially Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, is by itself worth the price of the book.
There has never been a war that was seen clearly while it was playing out. Wars can only come into proper historical focus many years after the fact, and that process is only just beginning for the Vietnam War. Colonel Ha’s Steel and Blood is one of those books that will resonate with historians as that process continues for many years into the future.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.